Bard Graduate Center/Centre Pompidou/National Museum of Ireland, 504 pp., $60.00 (paper; distributed by Yale University Press)
In Conversation with Eileen Gray
The Price of Desire
The rediscovery of long-forgotten women who were major participants in the creation of modern architecture—a restitution effort that arose with second-wave feminism in the 1970s—has had significant consequences. Not least of them has been an ongoing revision of the architectural canon, with unjustly overlooked female pioneers added to the once exclusively male pantheon of modernist master builders. Arguably the most fascinating and elusive of these path-breaking women is the Anglo-Irish architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray, who has come into much sharper focus during the past decade thanks in large part to a network of outstanding female scholars in the United States and Europe.
Interest in Gray was spurred by an excellent retrospective in 2013 at the Pompidou Center in Paris that then traveled to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and several of those involved in it regrouped for “Eileen Gray,” an even better survey that opened at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery earlier this year. Although the Covid-19 pandemic forced the premature closing of the New York show—a ravishing installation of two hundred objects, many of them great rarities—it will be long remembered because of its catalog, admirably edited by Cloé Pitiot and Nina Stritzler-Levine in a tour-de-force of exhaustive research and insightful interpretation. It was imaginatively designed by the Dutch graphic artist Irma Boom to evoke Gray’s aesthetic, right down to the three-tone grisaille fore-edges in homage to her geometric rug patterns, and is now the indispensable reference work on the subject.
Nevertheless, Gray remains an enigma. In contrast to such dynamos of the 1920s as Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and Charlotte Perriand, the temperamentally reticent Gray seems to have abetted her lingering obscurity. This was her besetting psychological struggle, which she was apparently aware of, according to her attentive friend and authorized (if sometimes unreliable) biographer, Peter Adam, a German-born British documentary filmmaker who died last year shortly before the publication of Eileen Gray: Her Life and Work, a revision of his Eileen Gray: Architect/Designer (1987).
For decades Adam monopolized information about Gray through his closeness with her niece, heir, and gatekeeper, the British artist Prunella Clough, and this likely did her reputation more harm than good. Gray’s standing as an architect was further undermined by her being primarily identified as a designer of furniture and interiors. She moved incrementally in scale from small individual objects to larger ensembles, then entire interiors, and finally buildings, a progression all the more astounding because she was self-taught in architecture, save for private instruction in technical draftsmanship from the Polish architect Adrienne Górska (sister of the Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka) in order to design her initial house.
Gray’s first complete interior design commission was a Paris apartment…
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